Of Daydreams and Desks

Of Daydreams and DesksI have a confession. I’ve been doing more daydreaming than writing recently.

Oh, I’ll start to write. I’ll open the file, scroll down to where I left off. Usually, I’ll even manage to make some forward progress, but soon enough, I’ll find myself staring off into the middle distance, thinking about how much I need a new desk. Not just any desk. A designer-perfect, sit-stand desk.

And wouldn’t that make my writing better? Wouldn’t it make me more productive? I’d be such an awesome writer if I only had a sit-stand desk with memory settings, and a reclaimed-wood desktop, and maybe a treadmill so I could still get my 10,000 steps in without having to go outside for a walk.

Next thing you know, I’m online looking for a local reclaimed-wood furniture-maker who does custom work, and I’m pricing out ergonomic desk accessories, which is ridiculous, because I haven’t actually sold a book yet. I might never sell a book. I certainly won’t sell a book if I’m spending my writing time researching furniture. And I can’t afford to buy a spiffy new desk for my spiffy new career, if I don’t have a spiffy new career, because I never wrote anything, because I was too busy thinking about how my office should look.

And it’s not just furniture. I daydream about assembling a gorgeous wardrobe for writing conferences, and about how nice it would be to have a tiny house in the backyard just for writing, and about casually mentioning “my agent” in conversation (note: I don’t have an agent.) There are always so many wonderful things to think about besides the work I’m supposed to be doing.

I know better. I do. I (almost) always come back to the page, back to the characters I adore and the story I’m excited to tell. But, man oh man, I could tell it so much better with a gorgeous, adjustable desk, don’t you think?

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Plotting and Post-Its

Plotting and Post-ItsThe hardest part of novel writing, for me, is structure.

Like most writers, I’ve always been a reader. Things like spelling, grammar, and even the rhythm of language come intuitively for me. If you read enough books, those elements of storytelling become second nature. You would think novel structure would work the same way or, at the very least, you’d think a degree in creative writing would fill in the gaps.

Untrue. My writing classes dealt with characterization, with description, with plot and setting and symbolism and tone. They dealt with word choice and sentence rhythm. They taught me to think about every aspect of my story—except for how one makes a manuscript hang together for 300 pages. That, I’m having to teach myself.

Perhaps part of the reason for this educational gap is that I started out as a literary fiction writer, taught by literary fiction authors. As the Buzzfeed writer, Daniel Dalton, defined “plot:”

What it means: The events that make up a story.

What it means when you’re a writer: Something genre writers worry about.

That’s not entirely the case, but it’s close enough to ring true.

I’ve been reading hard in my genre (200 books over the past two years) to get a feel for urban fantasy structure. I’ve even marked several up, noting the plot beats and act transitions. I’ve been tearing my novel apart and putting it back together, massaging the plot into making sense, working on pacing and tension. It’s hard. I’ve used up a lot of Post-It Notes.

Luckily, there are plenty of online resources to help when the going gets murky, as it so often does. Since I’m deep in the structural weeds with my revision right now, I’ve compiled some of my favorite links on three-act structure here, for my reference, and for yours.

Janice Hardy’s “How to Plot with Three Act Structure  is probably my favorite reference for its straightforward advice and wealth of helpful links.

Three-act structure is also taught in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Book in a Month, and I found her plot development worksheets incredibly useful.

Jami Gold’s article on using the Save the Cat beat sheet is fabulous. Save the Cat is a screenwriting handbook by Blake Snyder, but I’ve never met a novelist who doesn’t love it.

Kate Forsyth’s “Forsyth Triangle” is a great visual representation of how Freytag’s dramatic triangle maps onto three-act novel structure.

Michelle Weidenbenner’s article, “Math Tips for Constructing Your Novel With Susan Meissner gets into the nitty-gritty of how to plug scenes and chapters into the structural big picture.

I know there’s no magical formula for the perfect novel, but having a framework helps. Did I miss any great resources on structure? What do you use?

The Patients Are Upset About My Revision

The Patients Are Upset About My Revision
“Strange Paris #1” by Peter Rivera, CC BY 2.0

I think the revision work is getting to me.

When I’m stressed, I dream about packing. It’s ironic. I love packing in real life. I love the neatness of it, the precision of paring life down to only the necessary essentials. I have a stack of Eagle Creek packing cubes that I meticulously fill with rolled clothes. I have separate bags for makeup and shoes. I have a little folder for tickets and reserve rations. There’s a place for everything, and it makes me feel blissfully organized and in control.

In my dreams about packing, I can never finish the job. There’s always one more thing. I put the last item in the suitcase and realize there’s another drawer to empty. There’s something lying in the corner. There’s a closet full of clothes I forgot about. To add to the pressure, I’m usually late for my plane or someone is in the background pressing me to move faster. My dreams about packing aren’t quite nightmares, but they don’t make for a restful night’s sleep either.

Last night, I dreamt I was packing in the bathroom of a mental institution. A creepy, Batman-esque, horror movie mental institution, full of OCD carnival freaks augmented with prosthetic devices like tiny dolls hands and metal pincers. They didn’t like me touching things with my bare skin. The tiny plastic hands kept reaching out to close stall doors in front of me. They pulled items away before I could pack them. They stole my suitcase so I couldn’t continue to touch it. No matter what I tried to pack, the tiny hands were there first and they didn’t want me touching it.

Yeah, the revision work is definitely getting to me.

Celebrate or Drown Your Sorrows?

Finishing the Book: Celebrate or Drown Your Sorrows?Amanda Palmer posted a photo of herself on her blog yesterday, wearing a bra and panties, holding a wine glass in the air.

She wrote in no uncertain terms about the reason for her celebration.

I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK
I FINISHED MY BOOK

She looks exactly how it seems one should feel after completing a book: euphoric.

I envy her pure, unhinged joy. And I can honestly say I’ve never, ever felt like that on finishing a novel. Not once.

For me, finishing a project is more about reaching a quiet agreement with myself that it’s time to stop, than it’s like hitting the last chord in the final encore. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and not a performer, but I find “The End” to be a bittersweet moment.

A book-length project takes so long that it becomes woven into the fabric of my life. It becomes part of the definition for the time period it occupied: the year we painted the house yellow, the year of the floods, the year I wrote Wake Up Call. I dream about my novel characters. In my head, they’re as real as people I know, maybe even more real than people I know only on the Internet. Finishing a book is an accomplishment to be celebrated, but it’s also a sad goodbye.

Maybe someday I’ll finish a book and have that crazy, last-day-of-school feeling. I kind of hope not, though. I think I’d rather miss every one.

How about you?

Writer vs. Maker

IMG_3028I went to the Old Town Book Fair in Fort Collins this past weekend, not as a reader or as a writer, but as an artist/maker.

Of course, I am a maker. I wholeheartedly embrace that identity at art and craft shows, and amongst my friends and acquaintances in the Etsy crowd. I love being a maker and I certainly earn more income from selling the things I make than I do from writing. I don’t expect either of those things to change anytime soon.

Still, it felt strange to represent myself as anything other than a writer at an event conceived to celebrate books. I’ve been a writer for decades longer than I’ve been a maker. My degree is in writing, not art. Writing is as central to my identity as my first name. Despite not getting paid for it, writing was never my hobby.

Blogger Jason Cantrell wrote about this very idea last week. This is how summarized his feelings on Twitter:

My hobbies include etymology, carpentry, and video games. Writing isn’t a hobby.

I agree. Writing is a job that requires months or years of spec work before getting paid. It’s a job I’ve put thousands of hours into, both in formal education and in practice. It’s work that I could very well do my whole life without seeing any financial success. If that happened, I still wouldn’t consider it a hobby.

And yet, with no book to promote, there I was, at the book fair as a maker. As strange as it felt, it wasn’t bad. In my little maker booth, I got to meet several of the women behind Northern Colorado Writers. I had a chance to meet and talk with writer, Jamie Raintree, before her workshop on social media. I was able to chat with book lovers about the stories they loved and the books that shaped them. I watched shoppers roll my Unblockers dice and saw new stories blossoming inside them.

As much as I feel compelled to choose between being a writer and being a maker sometimes, the location of my booth doesn’t really matter. I’m living with a foot in each world, and that’s okay.  As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I can be more than one thing at a time. Right now, my choice is to be both.

Five Tortured Analogies About Soccer and Writing

What Soccer Can Teach You About WritingWho would have ever thought I’d be a sports fan? All those years sitting through football and basketball games in high school band weren’t enough to convert me. Dating sports lovers did nothing to sway me. Denver’s undying love for the Broncos never infected me. Nothing could pierce my hard, athletics-proof heart.

Until the Sounders.

The Sounders joined the MLS a month before we moved to Seattle. They played their first game a little over a year after we got there. I’m fairly certain there’s no other city in the U.S. that loves its soccer team like Seattle loves its Sounders. I felt the draw. When we happened to see the team’s supporters following their marching band from Pioneer Square to Century Link Field one night, singing and celebrating, I fell in love. Like flipping a switch.

I’m not a marcher or a chanter or singer, but for the first time in my life, I have a team. I seriously love my Sounders.

Of course, we don’t live in Seattle anymore, so I’ve had to make do. We go to Colorado Rapids games. I cheer for them. Until they play the Sounders, at which point I abandon all pretense and wear the Rave Green with pride.

God help me, I’ve become a fan—not just of the Sounders, of soccer, in general. I love a sport. I’m as surprised as anyone.

We’re deep in soccer season right now. It’s not just World Cup time. MLS is back from break, and the U.S. Open Cup is nearing its final rounds. In our house, that means there’s rarely a night without a game to stream, and I’ve now spent more time at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park than at any other entertainment venue in the state.

With all that soccer in my life, I suppose it’s only natural I’d start taking some writing lessons from the pitch. (See? I was going somewhere with this!)

Five things soccer has taught me about writing:

  1.  There’s no shame in a road draw. Sure, a win is always better, but home field advantage is a real thing. If a visiting team manages to fight to a draw on an unfamiliar field, after an exhausting travel schedule, in front of a hostile crowd, that’s a decent outcome. As a writer, what that means is: don’t beat yourself up when circumstances are against you, but don’t give up either. Write a sentence. Write a paragraph. Write your daily minimum and that’s it. Some days are harder than others, but you can at least write to a draw.
  2. Rock it at home. On the flip side, use the home field advantage when you have it. The Sounders have the highest attendance in the MLS, about double that of any other team. When the Sounders play at home, they’re riding a wave. The Colorado Rapids stadium doesn’t even hold half of the Sounders average attendance, but they have another trick up their collective sleeve. DSG Park is at about 5200’ altitude. For a sport where players run an average of seven miles per game, that’s a huge advantage. Whatever your home advantage is, whether it’s a surge of inspiration, a day when the kids are gone for an extra couple of hours, or making your scheduled writing time like clockwork, milk that edge for all its worth. Rocking it on the good days means you can roll with a few unavoidable defeats.
  3. You can’t score if you’re offside. I’m not going to try to fully explain the offside rule, but suffice it to say, it doesn’t do you any good to hang around by the goal and wait for someone to pass you the ball. The shot won’t count. In writing, what that means is you have to do the work. A publishing contract isn’t going to drop into your lap because you came up with a brilliant idea and chatted with an editor on Twitter (and if it did, I don’t want to hear about it.) You have to work the ball down the field yourself. You have to write.
  4. Fresh legs can turn the tide. Soccer teams get three substitutions per match. Sometimes, they’re forced into using subs when players are injured or penalized. Often, though, they save those precious substitutions for the last minutes of the game, when the other team starts to flag. Calling on someone who hasn’t spent the past 80 minutes running can be the difference between a loss and a come-from-behind victory. If you’re a writer, beta readers, critique partners, and editors are your fresh legs. Put them in when you’re exhausted, and they just might change your entire outlook.
  5. Never give up. In the USA-Portugal match this World Cup, the U.S. National Team was up by a goal after 90 minutes of play. The referee added five minutes of stoppage time, and Portugal scored in the 95th minute. They tied the game at just about the last possible second. I saw the same thing happen last night, as Seattle battled Portland in a U.S. Open game. Portland scored 30 seconds before the final whistle, to keep themselves alive for added time. The writing lesson here is obvious, isn’t it? It’s not over until it’s over, so whatever you do, keep playing. Keep writing. Don’t ever, ever write off the possibility of a last-minute stunner.

Mulish Behavior

20140707-164516-60316358.jpgRight now, I’m sitting in my unfinished basement because it’s 83° in my living room. I have my laptop on a folding table, facing a plain, black curtain that I put up to block the mess of half-full paint cans and plastic bins full of Christmas decorations. My thirteen-year-old son and his friend are playing on the Xbox above me, oblivious to the heat. They’re loud. Something exciting is happening. Something exciting is always happening.

I can’t help but think that if I were in my own little cottage, with a soft breeze and the trickle of a stream nearby, the words would flow more freely. If it were cooler or if we had air conditioning and I could be in my office upstairs, the writing would be easier. If I had noise-reducing headphones and a comfortable chair, I’d be infinitely more productive.

All of these things might be true (but probably aren’t.)  As it stands, I don’t have a tiny writer cottage or a stream, the temperature is what it is, and I am where I am. I still have to write.

Several years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk on muses and geniuses. If you haven’t seen it, the whole thing is worth a watch, but there’s one bit that I’ve thought of often over the past five years since she originally spoke. It falls between the tenth and twelfth minutes, but the important part is this:

I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.

I think about this so much because I’m a mule too. No matter how much I want to be a pipeline for creative genius, no matter how much I want to be a winged, writing fairy, no matter how much I want to ooze brilliance out my very pores, writing is probably always going to be work for me. Fulfilling work. But still work.

Some days, being a mule is awesome. You get up, strap on your plow, and magic happens. Before you know it, the day is over and you’re looking back at a gorgeous, perfectly-tilled field. Some days, you hit a rock first thing and you spend your entire day pushing against rock after rock, until the day ends and you’ve barely inched forward at all.

Today’s a rock sort of day, but I’ll be back tomorrow. It will still be hot. I still won’t have a cottage, but maybe, just maybe it’ll be smooth plowing.

 

Combating the Aspiring Writer Blues

IMG_4953My husband had his annual review yesterday. He’s a programmer. His company gives him a paycheck every two weeks. They do evaluations regularly. They say nice things, and then they give raises and bonuses.

I’m always happy for him when these things happen—especially because they generally benefit the whole family—but I’m also a little envious. I think I would like to be paid on a regular basis. To be told I’m doing a good job. To be courted and valued and rewarded for my work.

That’s not my reality.

I split my days between three jobs. I’m a mom and homemaker. I run an Etsy shop. I write. I love my life, but as a still-aspiring-writer, it’s sometimes a struggle to remind myself of the intrinsic rewards of the path I’ve chosen, because the extrinsic rewards are few and far between.

I know I’m not the only one contemplating the grass on this particular side of the fence, so here are some things worth remembering when you’re feeling lonely in the trenches.

  1. When you work for yourself, you get to control your time. I keep to a pretty regular schedule. For most of the year, my day is defined by the school schedule. In the summer, I still have to schedule myself to fit everything in. For the most part, though, when you don’t have a 9-5 job, your time is your time and you decide how to spend it. It’s a big deal to not have to clock in and out each day or schedule vacation time with a boss. Appreciate it.
  2. No one can stop you from giving yourself a bonus. It’s not the same. Believe me, I know it’s not. Unlike an outside boss, you can’t give yourself anything above and beyond what you’ve already earned. You simply don’t have it to give. Still, you can and should treat yourself. Offer yourself a reward for reaching a goal and stick to it. Personally, I like to bribe myself with shoes, but clothes are good too. Also  chocolate. I don’t bribe myself with books. Are you crazy? Those are necessities.
  3. You’re doing what you love. I confess, sometimes this argument doesn’t hold a lot of water with me, because my husband is doing what he loves too, only he gets a hefty paycheck for it. It is what it is, though, and it’s worth reminding yourself, because not everyone gets a choice.
  4. Someday this will be worth it. Your book won’t be unpublished forever. Eventually there will be showers of cupcakes and big fat checks and fans clamoring for your autograph. What? That’s not the case? LALALALALALALALALALALALA. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tell me, how do you stay motivated, all by your lonesome?

Let’s Talk Tools

IMG_8820Have you ever walked through an art store? All those lovely paints and markers, brushes and canvases! Writers definitely got the short end of stick when it came to tools of the trade.

A writer’s supply list looks pretty much like this:

1. Computer

2. …

Dismal.

Of course, we manage to pad out our writer identities with fountain pens, Moleskine notebooks, manual typewriters, and copies of Strunk & White, but on an everyday basis, there’s not a whole lot that separates a writer’s material needs from an accountant’s…although, even accountants get those nifty ledger books.

Enter software. I have two apps, made just for writers, that I use on a daily basis. One of them runs on my laptop, the other on my phone.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 2.34.48 PMIf you’ve spent any time at all out and about in the writing community, you’ve probably already heard of  Scrivener. It’s a “content generation tool” designed specifically for large-scale writing projects. It’s been years since I wrote a novel in anything but Scrivener, because it’s brilliant at keeping a mind-numbing amount of text neatly organized and accessible. Scrivener’s word count and project target tools help me stay on track with my daily goals. Its ability to keep track of my various notes, photos, and research links is icing on the cake. Plus, it makes me feel more special than Pages or Microsoft Word. I like feeling special.

IMG_8823The second app I use every single day is WordTracker for iOS. WordTracker is a time- and word count-tracking app. Press a big green button when you start writing each day, enter your word count when you finish, and WordTracker generates a host of statistics about your writing habits. It’s not a perfect app. I really wish it allowed negative word counts, for those days when revision ends up meaning more subtraction than addition. I also wish it allowed me to enter times and word counts manually when I realize I forgot to hit the button or I didn’t have my phone with me. Overall, though, I love knowing that I’ve put 160 hours of writing time into my current novel. Or that I average 432 words an hour, but that I once wrote 2300 words in that amount of time. The statistics give me a sense of accomplishment above and beyond just seeing my page count grow and my characters come to life. WordTracker makes the work I put in quantifiable. Take that, accountants!

I’ll confess, sometimes I still wish writing came with all the trappings of oil painting or sculpture, but at least we do have some tools that are just for us. Besides your computer, what do you use every day? What do you keep around just because it makes you feel like a writer?

To All The Books I’ve (Not) Revised Before

IMG_8709I have written ten novels.

I have concocted ten plots, divided each of them into chapters, pounded away at ten manuscript files until they had at least 50,000 words each, and wrote the words “the end” as I came to the conclusion of ten story lines.

I have not finished ten novels. I haven’t even finished one.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I suppose it makes me sound like the type of person who starts projects and then abandons them willy-nilly. I’m not that type at all. I’m more the type of person who reads through to the bitter end of a novel she hates, just to say she did it. I’m the type who takes a dance class to get out of the house and, three years later, finds herself onstage in a $300 costume, with no clear idea how Step A led to Point Q. I’m the type who decides to put a few things up on Etsy and ends with a registered business and a sales tax license. This isn’t a result of relentless drive and an unsurpassed work ethic. I just forget to quit.

Unless something reminds me. The end of NaNoWriMo? That’s a convenient time to quit. Goal met. Achievement unlocked. Time to set the book aside and do something else. So that’s what I did. Nine times. I don’t regret it.

This novel, though? Number ten? I didn’t write it during NaNoWriMo. There was no bell at the end of the work day, nothing to tell me to stop, so I didn’t. I started revising. I don’t regret that, either

I was surprised to find I really like revision. I like how well I know my characters by the time I make my way back around to the beginning of their story. I like how clear the decisions are, how everything that was murky and difficult the first time through becomes clear and understandable on the second pass. I like how pretty the words look after I comb back through them, like a freshly raked zen garden.

And the ideas! While I was writing my first draft, I worried another book would never come to me, Now that I’ve turned off the drafting tap and switched to revising, the new ideas can barely be contained. As immersive as revising can be, it frees up the plotting part of my brain to explore other ideas. It’s exhilarating.

I’m sorry, nine books I didn’t bother revising. We weren’t ready to take the next step.

To number ten? Turns out, revising is awesome. Don’t tell the others.